Post-Mandela South Africa Is a Nation on Edge

Recent elections exposed a weakening ANC, with an embattled president and an economy no longer pre-eminent on the continent.

South African and African National Congress President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters during a rally celebrating ANC’s election victory on May 10, 2014, in Johannesburg. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

That an embattled African National Congress won the latest round of South African elections was not at all surprising. However, this particular election was a curious inflection point in the post-Mandela era, presenting a number of alarming transitions for what was, up until very recently, Africa’s most powerful and stable democracy. 

In the wistful wake of legend Nelson Mandela’s passing, South Africa reveals troubling signs. The country is not really the relative oasis of continental modernity and democratic self-control that it’s hyped itself to be since his historic 1994 presidential win. The elections, in which an entrenched ANC machine barely avoided a split government, injected gloomy uncertainty into South Africa’s future, and refractured what little sense of reconciliation there was in the postapartheid era.  Such unease threatens to push a fragile country deeper into poverty and resets questions on whether or not its black majority will recover and eventually prosper from years of brutal segregation

The once hopeful post-colonialist story of South Africa is now battered by crime, poverty and HIV/AIDS, forcing an uncomfortable re-examination. Contemporary South Africa isn’t playing out like a feel-good Invictus group hug. Rampant corruption—South African ranks 72 out of 177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index—has always been a tell-us-something-we-don’t-know fact of life in the nation of 50 million, as has bribery and laughingstock leadership in the form of current President Jacob Zuma.

It’s an emerging about-face from the sunny-side up of the Mandela era. The legendary activist’s presence was, in many respects, the plug in a leaking dam. A highly cited Ipsos poll— annoyingly absent any racial breakdowns—showed Zuma with 50 percent disapproval and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at 47 percent disapproval. By American standards, that might seem normal considering President Barack Obama is 1.7 percentage points higher in disapproval than Zuma—but that’s distressing for the head of the country’s dominant ANC.

Up until now, the ANC enjoyed fanatic loyalty from black South Africans who know it as the fam that blew up apartheid. Today, it’s fast becoming a fading, corrupt shell of its former Mandela-inspired glory. Only 48 percent believe the government is effective, and this election (in which the ANC barely managed to get the 60 percent needed to keep Zuma in office) highlighted a nationwide lack of confidence spurred by massive unemployment and generational gaps.

That’s giving both South Africans and an entire continent something to stress about. Despite the fact Nigeria has now outpaced it as Africa’s largest economy, South Africa still wields mad clout as a major economic engine. It’s at the tip of a postcolonial world experiencing promising flashes of extraordinary growth. For once in its modern lifetime, Africa, from east to west and below the Sahara, is becoming middle class.

Instability in South Africa is not a good look, especially as neighboring Zimbabwe under controversial despot Robert Mugabe continues to spiral endlessly into an inflationary abyss. A South African collapse would throw devastating disruptions into the rest of the continent while destroying any gains of economic equity made by its struggling black majority.

White South Africans are also making frantic moves to adapt. Mandela may have discovered creative ways to lighten the mood and—seriously—keep his understandably angry brethren from going on a revenge spree like Zimbabwe. But, he’s not around anymore. In his place is Zuma busily managing his infamous sexual appetite and pilfering public coffers for $23 million “security enhancements” on his home

The white population, which controls all economic levers in South Africa, is said to be jittery as an ANC-driven land reform process sparks fears from white farmers of losing land long-ago stolen from powerless blacks.

And an evolving X factor in the direction of South African politics is also a growing white South African poverty rate that’s topped 10 percent. That’s tickled a larger political opening for the once lusterless and largely white-run ANC rival known as the Democratic Alliance, which took a non-unrespectable 22 percent in the recent elections.